Thursday, March 5, 2009

Campbell Brown's No Bias, No Bull - Appropriations Bill "Loaded with Pork" - Earmarks: Another Look

Well, snarky Brown opened up her show tonight with another slam about the "loaded with pork" appropriations bill. And what is her definition of "loaded with pork"? 7 billion out of 410 billion. That's less than 2% of the entire bill. 40% came from Republicans, 60% from Democrats. One wonders how she would describe a bill that were oh, say, 50% earmarks?

Worse, I have recently learned that earmarks are not what I thought they were: spending added to a bill by a Senator or Representative to benefit a special project. That's not true, and it is time that our useless media got it right.

From the Wikipedia:

The federal Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as funds provided by Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.

Attempts have been made to define earmarks in ethics and budget reform legislation. However, due to the controversial nature of earmarks and the effects these definitions would have on Congressional power, none of these has been widely accepted.

Despite the lack of a consensus definition, the one used most widely was developed by the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress:

"Provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report)."[2]

In short, this is not new money but the allocation of money already authorized but not directed.

The argument in favor of earmarks that I heard during the debates this week is that Congress has a right, and a duty, to direct spending. The issue is not whether the money should have been appropriated but where it should be spent. So who should decide? For conservatives (one of whom I am not) the quandary could be stated thusly: who can better decide where to spend money? A faceless Federal bureaucrat or the person representing the district or state?

Looked at in that light, maybe earmarks aren't so bad. Yes, some are dumb, from one perspective or another. But Representatives are elected to represent the needs of the people in their district. And Senators are elected to represent the interests of their states. As a Californian, I might think a project in Minnesota is stupid and wasteful while a Minnesotan might think the same of a project in California.

Obviously, our elected officials have obligations to the country as a whole, in addition to their parochial issues, but I can't see any bright hard line telling them when to give priority to their personal morality, their constitutents, or the country.

Bottom line: earmarks do not increase the cost of spending bills, they simply direct some of the spending. One can argue about who should direct the spending (the Federal government or Congressional representatives), and whether specific projects benefit the country as a whole and even whether that kind of test is realistic or practical in our federal system. But it is time that Americans learned that when we are arguing about earmarks we are arguing not about how much money has been authorized but where it is being spent and who has the right or duty to decide where it is spent.

Grunwald's March 5, 2009 Time piece does a better job than I have done at pointing out where the real problem may be.

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